8:00 a.m. JST, September 10, 2022
A group of government experts made headlines in July when it called Japan’s drop in births a “quiet emergency”. Last year births hit a new record high of 810,000, marking a 60% drop from around 2 million in the early 1970s. The total fertility rate is below 2.00 – the minimum level necessary to maintain the population – for almost half a century, reaching 1.30 last year.
If the number of births continues to decline at this rate, Japan will theoretically cease to exist, even without being subjected to any military force. It really is an “emergency” situation.
Meanwhile, the 2020 census results showed surprisingly high percentages of people who had never been married by the age of 50 – around 28% for men and 18% for women.
Given the decline in births, the increase in the number of unmarried people is a major problem. This is because most children are born to married couples. Children born out of wedlock represent only about 2% of all births in Japan. Many experts have started pointing to the social phenomenon of the increasing number of single people as the real cause of the decline in births in recent years.
So far, central and local governments have focused their efforts in their fight against the low birth rate on supporting couples trying to have children. They increased the number of child care centres, made medical care for infants free, and introduced free preschool and tuition-free secondary education programs. The burden of having children on young couples must be much less than before. While these are of course important policies, they are not effective in increasing the number of marriages.
Kanako Amano, a senior researcher at the NLI Research Institute, says what we need now is “to create a social environment in which men and women who want to marry can meet their partners and get married then they’re still in their twenties.”
As an expert on Japanese demographics and the declining birth rate, she analyzed data on marriage and childbearing and interviewed many young people. Looking at the age distribution of those who registered their first marriage in 2020, Amano said the most common age was 27 for men and 26 for women, while the average age was 31 for men and 29 for women.
“People in their twenties tend to think there’s no need to rush into marriage and that school or work are more important. But the data tells us that it becomes very difficult for men and women to find a partner of their liking once they reach the age of 30,” she said. The existence of a biological delay in having children, especially for women, is well known. Amano says we should also be aware of the time frame for getting married.
But even with the awareness of a time limit, the Japanese labor market and employment practices seem to prevent young people from finding partners and getting married.
It is common for Japanese companies to hire young university graduates with no work experience and train them on the job until they acquire the necessary skills. As a result, young employees in their twenties tend to be seen as apprentices in their workplaces and are required to work overtime and sometimes even weekends. Naturally, this leaves little time for privacy.
Additionally, Amano points to the maldistribution of young male and female populations as a problem. More women than men leave the regions to settle in Tokyo when they start working. Thus, there are more men than women of marriageable age in regional areas and more women than men in Tokyo, making it difficult to form couples.
While the number of women with university degrees is increasing, small and medium enterprises, which are often located in regional areas, have not yet fully integrated women as human resources. Even though the women want to return to their hometowns, the lack of jobs where they can leverage their expertise and grow their careers means many of them end up working in Tokyo.
There are also financial factors. Because real per capita wages in Japan have not increased over the past three decades, more and more young students, unable to rely on their parents, have taken out loans to go to college. As a result, many enter the workforce with heavy debts and are unable to bear the financial burden of marrying and starting families.
What can central and local governments do in the face of declining births?
According to the report on government measures to deal with the declining birth rate produced by the panel of experts mentioned at the beginning of this article, 70% of prefectures offer matchmaking services to resolve marital difficulties.
I am not saying that such programs do not make sense, but they are not enough.
What we need to do now is simple, but difficult to achieve in the short term: we need to increase wage levels for young people, reduce overtime by changing work practices and improving work efficiency, promote empowerment women – especially in regional areas – and provide more academic financial aid that does not require repayment. These objectives must be achieved through legislation, subsidies, tax incentives and other measures for small and medium-sized enterprises as well as for large enterprises.
My daughter, a junior high school third-year student, recently learned in class about declining birth rates and the rapidly aging society in Japan. She said she was sad to imagine a future with fewer and fewer young people. How can we adults explain to his younger generation how we got into this situation?
The drop in births is a quiet emergency because it will get worse before we know it. It will take another twenty years for the measures taken against it to produce effects. The whole of society must immediately awaken to a sense of crisis and develop momentum to prevent the fall of Japan.
Political Pulse appears every Saturday.
Higuchi is an editor in the Lifestyle News department of Yomiuri Shimbun.